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Donald Trump Said Saudi Arabia Was Behind 9/11. Now He’s Going There on His First Foreign Trip.

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MEHDI HASSAN

DOES DONALD TRUMP have even an ounce of shame?

As a presidential candidate, he spent much of the election campaign needling, critiquing, denouncing and even threatening the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yet as president, he is making his first foreign visit this weekend to … the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Even by Trumpian standards, the volte-face is brazen. In his first few months in power, we have witnessed the trademark Trump Turnabout on issues ranging from NATO to China to the Export-Import Bank. We have listened to him go from praising Bashar al Assad and rebuking Janet Yellen on the campaign trail, to praising Yellen and rebuking Assad in office. Last October, he said the then-FBI Director James Comey had “guts” for doing “the right thing”; last week, he sacked Comey and called him a “showboat” and a “grandstander.”

Trump, to put it mildly, is no stranger to the shameless U-turn. Still, the Trump Turnabout on Saudi Arabia — one of America’s closest allies since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Murphy in 1945 — is a true sight to behold. This weekend, Trump will arrive in Saudi Arabia for a bilateral summit with King Salman as well as a series of meetings with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

There will be handshakes, hugs and smiles galore. We will be expected to forget how Trump blasted the Saudi royals for being freeloaders and threatened them with an economic boycott. Speaking to the New York Times last year, Trump claimed that, without U.S. support and protection, “Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long.” The real problem, he continued, was that the Saudis are “a money machine … and yet they don’t reimburse us the way we should be reimbursed.” Asked if he would be willing to “stop buying oil from the Saudis” if they refused to pull their weight, Trump responded: “Oh yeah, sure. I would do that.”

We will be also expected to ignore the fact that Trump slammed the Saudi government for executing homosexuals and treating women “horribly.” In the third presidential debate last October, Trump attacked Hillary Clinton for taking $25 million from the Saudis, from “people that push gays off … buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money.”

Perhaps above all else, we will be expected to brush under the carpet the fact that, twice in a single day, Trump accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the 9/11 attacks. “Who blew up the World Trade Center?” Trump asked his pals at Fox and Friends on the morning of February 17, 2016. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”

At a campaign event in South Carolina later that day, he again cited “secret papers” that could prove it was “the Saudis” who were in fact responsible for the attacks on 9/11. “It wasn’t the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center … because they have papers in there that are very secret, you may find it’s the Saudis, okay?”

(To be fair to Trump, far more credible and better-informed figures have come to a similar conclusion: “I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia,” wrote former Florida senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Senate intelligence committee’s inquiry into 9/11, in an affidavit in 2012.)

Whether or not the Saudi government played a role in the 9/11 attacks — and we may never know — for a leading U.S. presidential candidate to claim that they did, not once but twice, had to be seen to be believed. And yet, astonishingly, a little over a year later, it is to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that Trump has chosen to make his maiden foreign voyage — rather than to Canada or Mexico, as every president since Ronald Reagan has.

Will Trump return from his Saudi jaunt with a big fat check? His much-hyped “reimbursement”? Will he dare raise the issue of gay rights while in Riyadh? Or women’s rights? Will he manage to bring back a Saudi royal or two in handcuffs for their (alleged) role in the 9/11 attacks? Please. There are greater odds of the American president coming back as a proud convert to Islam.

Hypocrisy is not the exclusive preserve of Trump or the United States, of course. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the “the birthplace of Islam,” ruled by a king who styles himself “custodian of the two holy mosques.” Yet this coming weekend, the Saudi government will offer a warm and lavish welcome to a president who has said “Islam hates us” and wanted to ban all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims from entering the United States. The Saudi position on the latest iteration of the Trump travel ban, targeted at 170-million-odd Muslims? A “sovereign” decision aimed, apparently, at “preventing terrorists from entering the United States of America” and made by a “true friend of Muslims.”

On Sunday, the fawning Saudis will offer a platform to the world’s most famous Islamophobe, to give a speech on Islam in “the birthplace” of Islam. And Trump will likely take the opportunity to decry “radical Islamic terrorism” while visiting a country which has perhaps done more than any other to incite, fund and fuel it.

Hypocrisy unites them both. So too does their fear and loathing of the Iranians — the Saudis are busying dropping bombs and backing militants to push back Iranian influence in Yemen and Syria. The Trump administration, filled with Iran hawks, is on the verge of inking a series of arms deals with Riyadh worth more than $100 billion.

To be clear: Trump’s U-turn on Saudi Arabia has little to do with being moderated by the realities of high office or swayed by the Beltway’s foreign policy elites. Despite his bombastic campaign rhetoric, he never planned to go after the Saudis in office — even after publicly accusing them of murdering 3,000 Americans. Early on in the campaign, in 2015, a senior Arab diplomat told me, on condition of anonymity, that Trump had informed most of the Gulf governments, in private, that his anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric was “all for the campaign” and that it would be business as usual once he was elected (or, for that matter, defeated).

As ever, for Trump, it is always, above all else, about the bottom line — his bottom line. The Saudi-bashing Trump sold an entire floor of the Trump World Tower to the Saudis for $4.5 million in 2001. And would it surprise you to discover that Trump also registered eight companies tied to hotel interests in Saudi Arabia in the midst of his Saudi-bashing presidential campaign?

Of course not. Business is business. Trump is Trump. You might be repulsed by his deceitfulness…but you have to admire his chutzpah.

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U.S. Put 92 Somalis on a Deportation Flight, Then Brought Them Back

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Ninety-two Somali citizens were flown out of the United States under orders of deportation on Thursday, but their plane never made it to Somalia. The flight landed in the West African country of Senegal and, facing logistical problems, was rerouted back to the United States.

It was an unexpected, 5,000-mile backtrack for the migrants, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, or even decades, while on a list for deportation because they had entered the country without proper documentation.

In recent weeks, dozens of Somali citizens were transported from their homes in the United States — many were living in Minnesota — to Louisiana in preparation for the flight. A few, with the help of lawyers, managed to secure stays of removal.

The 92 on the plane got only as far as Senegal’s capital, Dakar, according to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In an emailed statement on Friday, the agency said it was notified that a relief flight crew was “unable to get sufficient crew rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar,” so the aircraft and detainees spent time parked at the airport there. It added that “various logistical options were explored, and ultimately ICE decided to reschedule the mission to Somalia and return to the United States with all 92 detainees.”

Civilians helping a man who was injured in a suicide car bomb explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in October. Credit Feisal Omar/Reuters

War, famine and disease have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia since the central government collapsed in 1991. Militants, including members of the Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group, are still carrying out deadly attacks in the Horn of Africa country. A pair of truck explosions killed hundreds of people on one of the busiest streets in Mogadishu, the capital, in October. It was the deadliest attack the city had experienced in decades.

Kim Hunter, a lawyer whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said it did not make sense to send her clients back to such a dangerous country.

“The security situation is abysmal,” she said on Thursday. “I, apparently, was naïve because I actually believed that following the Oct. 14 bombing, this flight might be suspended.”

Ms. Hunter learned on Friday that the flight had turned around and her clients’ deportations had been rescheduled, though it was unclear for when. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not provide that information in advance.

Ms. Hunter said she also had no advance notice when immigration officials recently transported five of her clients from their Minnesota homes. (They were first taken to Louisiana to prepare for their deportation.) Her law firm scrambled to secure stays of removal for the men and helped three avoid the flight.

Now that the other two have had their deportations delayed, Ms. Hunter said she would keep working to prevent their removal. Neither client has a criminal record, and both have been in the United States for more than a decade. One is married to a permanent resident and has children who are United States citizens.

“We’re inclined to think that this sort of failed flight reflects on the fact that more deportations are being carried out in haste and are perhaps not as well-planned as they might have been previously,” she added.

One Somali woman in Minnesota, who did not want to give her name for fear of getting her family in trouble with the authorities, said in a phone interview on Friday that her cousin was among those on the flight.

She said she had been desperate for answers since Wednesday, when her cousin called from Louisiana saying he was about to be deported. “I was very sad. I cried, and he told me not to make him cry,” she said, adding that it would be dangerous for him to land in Mogadishu because he had no connections there. “He hasn’t seen Somalia for the last 20 years.”

Many Somali citizens who are in the United States without documentation have been able to stay for years despite deportation orders because Somalia would not grant them the necessary travel documents. Mogadishu, which opened an embassy in Washington in 2015, appears to be cooperating with American officials to accept more of its citizens back.

The number of Somali people being deported from the United States has risen since 2014. During that fiscal year, 65 Somali citizens were removed from the United States. That number jumped to 120 the next year, and 198 the year after that.

In the fiscal year 2017, 521 Somali citizens were deported, according to the most recent report from ICE. A spokeswoman for the agency said there were five chartered flights to Somalia that year.

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U.S. Diplomat’s Resignation Signals Wider Exodus From State Department

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Departure of foreign service officer from East Africa reflects wider exodus of mid-level diplomats as morale continues to deteriorate under Tillerson and Trump.

An award-winning U.S. diplomat who was seen as a rising star at the State Department has issued a scathing resignation letter, accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration of undercutting the State Department and damaging America’s influence in the world.

Elizabeth Shackelford, who most recently served as a political officer based in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia, wrote to Tillerson that she reluctantly had decided to quit because the administration had abandoned human rights as a priority and shown disdain for the State Department’s diplomatic work, according to her letter, obtained by Foreign Policy.

“I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this Administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times,” Shackelford wrote in her Nov. 7 letter, which is published in full below.

“With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers.”

Her former colleagues said her departure — and the sentiments expressed in her letter — reflect a wider exodus of mid-career diplomats who have lost confidence in Tillerson’s management and the Trump administration’s approach toward diplomacy.

“She’s emblematic of what we’re losing across the board,” said one of Shackelford’s former State Department colleagues. “She is the best among us. We should not be losing the best among us. And that should concern people that we are,” said the former colleague.

In her letter, Shackelford said she was leaving with a “heavy heart” as she recognized the potential of the State Department’s mission. She said she was “shocked” when Tillerson appeared to cast doubt on the importance of human rights in remarks to department employees on May 3.

The State Department’s role in internal government debates also had “diminished,” she wrote, with the White House handing over authority to the Pentagon to shape the country’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, unfilled vacancies and proposed budget and staffing cuts had left the department adrift, with weakened influence inside the administration and on the ground, she wrote.

“The cost of this is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning,” she wrote.

In the closing paragraph of her letter, Shackelford called on Tillerson “to stem the bleeding by showing leadership and a commitment to our people, our mission, and our mandate as the foreign policy arm of the United States.

“If you are unable to do so effectively within this Administration, I would humbly recommend you follow me out the door.”

When asked about the criticisms in the letter, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “We are not able to comment on the career choices of each person at the Department.”

“However, I can say that the Secretary has made clear that his objective is to make the State Department more efficient, more effective, and for staff to have a much more rewarding and satisfying career,” she added.

Tillerson has faced a wave of criticism from lawmakers and former senior diplomats about what they say is the dismantling of the State Department amid a hemorrhaging of top talent, a hiring freeze, and plummeting morale. He has firmly rejected the criticism, insisting the media mischaracterizes the rate of those leaving the department and that his plan to “redesign” the State Department is employee-driven and prioritizes the staff’s well-being.

“What it’s done,” Tillerson said of the hiring freeze on Friday, “was just a little bit of a blunt instrument to have everyone be a little more disciplined about filling their positions.”

But even his harshest critics say much of the blame for the troubled state of the foreign service rests with the president, who has shown an impatience with diplomacy and often sidelined Tillerson.

Shackelford’s sentiments also reflect a long-held but growing concern among diplomats and experts that U.S. policy is increasingly dominated and shaped by the military, particularly in Africa. The Pentagon has expanded its footprint and operations on the continent with additional funding while the State Department and U.S. AID face steep budget cuts and a dearth of ambassadors or top appointees in Washington.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired career diplomat and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the U.S. military has a vital role to play in Africa and elsewhere but said the pendulum was swinging too far away from diplomacy. “You can’t just do military. You have to have the complement of diplomatic and development working alongside the military colleagues,” she told FP.

Somalia reflects a balance that clearly favors the military, as the State Department lacks the manpower and resources of its Pentagon counterparts. In recent months, the U.S. military has expanded its role with hundreds of troops and more strikes against al Shabab militants, while diplomatic efforts have ebbed following the departure of U.S. ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz in October.

The staff at the U.S. mission have repeatedly asked Washington for permission to meet Somali political leaders at Villa Somalia, the presidential residence, but the State Department has rejected the request on security grounds. U.S. military officers are able to meet Somali officials at the presidential palace, and other foreign diplomatic missions regularly visit the building for talks.

Friday was Shackelford’s last day as a foreign service officer after nearly eight years in the State Department.

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the 38-year-old Shackelford graduated first in her class at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. She worked at a law firm, then the consulting company Booz Allen on foreign aid projects before joining the foreign service in 2010.

Shackelford distinguished herself in South Sudan for overseeing the evacuation of 1,000 Americans and other foreign nationals when violence erupted in Juba in December 2013. For her leadership skills and crisis planning in the evacuation effort, she received a department-wide Barbara W. Watson award for consular excellence.

During her stint in South Sudan, Shackelford worked to document and focus attention on human rights abuses, according to those she worked with and a personal statement she submitted as part of an employee evaluation. She cultivated contacts with South Sudanese civil society organizations and met with victims and witnesses of atrocities committed in the country’s conflict. Convinced that there could be no lasting peace without coming to terms with crimes committed on both sides, she co-wrote a dissenting cable backed by some of her fellow diplomats making that argument.

“Her view was if we don’t deal with accountability now, whatever peace that’s achieved is going to be temporary,” said another former colleague, who worked with her in Juba. “She made it her mission to get human rights material out the door.”

Shackelford is not alone in accusing the Trump administration of backsliding on America’s support for human rights and democracy over the past ten months. Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to the president on Friday accusing his administration of failing to assert America’s commitment to human rights.

The lawmakers wrote that “for much of the past year, our national voice on international human rights issues has been largely silent.”

But Deputy Secretary John Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that in a recent tour of Africa, he repeatedly raised human rights concerns with governments in Ethiopia and Sudan, saying it was a crucial element in the fight against terrorist threats.

“The United States continues to emphasize respect for human rights as a fundamental part of our counterterrorism strategy,” Sullivan told lawmakers.

Six months ago, when Shackelford began considering leaving the foreign service, her mentors and colleagues encouraged her to stay the course, telling her she had a promising career ahead of her and that the difficulties would pass, she told FP.

But in a sign of plunging morale in the foreign service, when she spoke to those same colleagues two months ago about resigning, she got a much different response.

“It had completely changed to a person,” she said. “Nobody tried to talk me out of it. Everybody said, ‘yep, I get it.’”

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Watch: Al Franken Announces His Resignation From The Senate

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